Asian Americans are often referred to as the “new Jews,” due to their reputation for studiousness, drive for success and, consequently, their remarkable rise in society over just the last few decades.
Yet, unlike Jews, Asians remain virtually invisible in this country’s theater, film and television. Now comes a production by the National Asian American Theater Company (NAATCO) of Clifford Odets’ Depression-era masterpiece, “Awake and Sing!” Directed by Stephen Fried, the all-Asian production opened last week at the Walker Space in Soho.
Odets has had a high profile lately, with Lincoln Center Theater productions of both “Awake and Sing!” and “Golden Boy” and a Roundabout production of “The Big Knife.” But “Awake and Sing!” is Odets’ most profoundly Jewish work; the original 1935 Group Theatre production, critic Alfred Kazin exulted, enabled him to see “my mother and father and uncles and aunts occupying the stage by as much right as if they were Hamlet and Lear.”
NAATCO, directed by Mia Katigbak, is no stranger to Jewish plays. The company, which was founded in 1989 in order to give Asian Americans greater opportunities to perform classic drama, has incorporated some newer works into its repertoire, including William Finn’s quirky Jewish musical, “Falsettoland” in 2007 and Karen Hartman’s Holocaust drama, “Leah’s Train” in 2009. “Awake and Sing!” is performed by a cast of striking intra-Asian diversity, with actors from both East and South Asia.
Sanjit De Silva plays Moe, the wisecracking gangster memorably performed by Walter Matthau in the exemplary 1972 TV adaptation of the play. De Silva won plaudits for his portrayals of both a lower-class Welsh soldier and a high class British major in “War Horse” at Lincoln Center.
Odets’ characters, he noted, “speak in a muscular and lyrical way; they think and live with a kinetic energy and point of view about life” that is instantly recognizable to Asian immigrants with their own hopes and dreams. When Fried told the cast stories about his Jewish grandmother, De Silva recalled, the cast all responded, “That’s not just Jewish; that’s Asian too!”
Katigbak, who was born in the Philippines, said that while she was concerned, with “Leah’s Train,” about the cast overdoing the Jewish stereotypes, she is now struck by the opportunity for the overturning of perceptions of Asians. With its blunt and passionate language, she noted, “Awake and Sing!” gives actors the opportunity to erode stereotypes of Asians as “inscrutable, unemotional, quiet, passive and submissive.” By playing Jews, the Asian cast can both “tap into the truth of the material and go against the grain.” Seeing characters “encased in a different outside” from the one given to them by the playwright “encourages people to look at Asians in a different way.”
“Awake and Sing!” runs through Sept. 8 at Walker Space, 46 Walker St. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 7, with matinees on Sept. 7 and 8 at 2 p.m. For tickets, $25, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.naatco.org.